Golden opportunities: Alberta Indigenous Games celebrates record-breaking year

Lacrosse player William Horne Jr. was just five years old when roughly 300 youths gathered in Edmonton to test their athleticism at the inaugural Alberta Indigenous Games in 2011.

Now the 17 year old is among 5,000 competitors showcasing their skills and vying for honours at the 2023 games, marking a record-breaking year of growth for what’s become one of the largest Indigenous sport tournaments in Canada.

“It’s always been a great way to get some lacrosse in, see some old friends and meet some new ones,” said Horne, adding that he has regularly competed in the games since 2019.

While typically a goalkeeper, the Edmonton athlete played offense this year with the Kainai Kings, who managed to scoop up a silver medal. 

But he’s not done yet. 

After trying his hand in the canoe and kayak events, Horne is rushing off to Utica, NY, where he was invited to join Team Canada at the International Indoor Junior Lacrosse Championships.

William Horne Jr. and his team won silver at the 2023 Alberta Indigenous Games. Next he will be travelling to Utica, NY, to play in the International Indoor Junior Lacrosse Championships.

Fast friends, wide appeal

The Alberta Indigenous Games were created to help youth with sport development, educational empowerment and career opportunities while creating cultural connections. 

With more than a dozen events on the schedule, the 2023 games include basketball, volleyball and baseball and archery competitions, but also traditional hand games, which involves hiding items in hand from opponents who have to guess which hand is concealing.  

These challenges draw more than just an Edmonton crowd, uniting youth from Little Red River Cree Nation, about 550 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, to Blood Tribe, south of Calgary—plus those from out of province.

“There are a lot of friendships made over the years,” said Jake Hendy, CEO of the Alberta Indigenous Games, at Edmonton EXPO Centre. The venue hosted the opening ceremony on August 9, which saw dozens of youth pour into the mid-sized arena in a grand entry to mark the occasion. Many of them sported team jerseys and proudly raised placards bearing the names of their communities.

The games have flourished over the years thanks to a growing list of supporters including the City of Edmonton, which helps provide facilities for the events.

“Maybe we’ll outgrow this one day and be at the Commonwealth Stadium,” Hendy mused.

Youth participants hold signs with the names of Indigenous communities during a grand entry at the Alberta Indigenous Games opening ceremony in the Edmonton EXPO Centre on August 9, 2023.
From left, Chief Tony Alexis of Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation, Alberta Lieut.-Gov. Salma Lakhani and former Treaty 6 Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild attend opening ceremonies at Edmonton EXPO Centre for the 2023 Alberta Indigenous Games.

The outdoor sports arena and home of the Edmonton Elks might well appeal to Hendy’s 15-year-old daughter, Talitah Hendy-Crowfoot, a competitor and volunteer co-ordinator at the games who recently found a passion for football.

‘Grow the game’

A basketball player from the age of six, Hendy-Crowfoot decided to give the gridiron a go back in April as a backup safety with an Edmonton club. 

By July, she was amazed to find herself on the national Indigenous team at Football Canada’s under-18 women’s tackle championship in Ottawa, where she won an offensive MVP award

Some of that success she chalks up to an athletic IQ instilled by her family, which is steeped in sports. Her father, who used to play football himself, used to toss her tennis balls as a child to build eye-hand coordination.

Jake Hendy (right), Alberta Indigenous Games CEO, stands at an awards ceremony for the 2022 games.

“I did a lot of sports growing up,” she said with a chuckle before listing pursuits such as soccer, baseball and ballet. “I even did water polo at one point.”

After scoring gold medals in two divisions this year with basketball teams from Siksika Nation east of Calgary, she’s planning to participate in the flag football tournament—a new addition to the lineup alongside skateboarding and wheelchair basketball.

“I know a lot of kids look forward to it and train for it every year,” she said of the games. “It gives them opportunities to showcase their talent, compete against a bunch of other Indigenous communities and shows them are other people who love the sport as much as they do.” 

For Horne, the lacrosse player, that love manifests in sharing the game with others, like his sister,  and coaching younger players to be better goaltenders. 

More than just a competition, the Alberta Indigenous Games offers him an opportunity to “grow the game,” which comes with its own challenges.

“It’s funny,” he said, “because now I play against some of those goalies.”

A youth soccer player dribbles the ball at the Alberta Indigenous Games in 2022 . Photo credit: Doba Photography.
An athlete prepares winds up to swing a baseball bat during the 2022 Alberta Indigenous Games. Photo credit: Doba Photography.

Learn more about the Alberta Indigenous Games, running August 9-19, on its website and Facebook page

Editor’s note: the pic at the top of the post shows Talitah Hendy-Crowfoot (left) and William Horne Jr. at the Edmonton EXPO Centre, which hosted the opening ceremony for the 2023 Alberta Indigenous Games on August 9, 2023.